Amid red flags, state launches Empowering Parents grants review

(UPDATED, 4:55 p.m., with additional comment and details.)

The State Board of Education is reviewing the Empowering Parents program — saying some of the federally funded family education microgrants may have been used to cover ineligible purchases such as clothes, TVs, smart watches or household cleaning items.

The scope of the purchasing problems was not immediately clear, and there isn’t a clear timetable for the review. It’s also unclear whether the state can get its money back for an unauthorized purchase.

The questionable grants date back to at least mid-February, State Board spokesman Mike Keckler told Idaho Education News Friday.

“There were some purchases made that raised a red flag,” Keckler said.

One of Gov. Brad Little’s centerpiece K-12 initiatives, the $50 million Empowering Parents grants program is designed to help low-income households cover out-of-pocket education costs. Eligible households can receive up to $1,000 per child or $3,000 per family. The state used federal coronavirus aid to cover the grants.

Purchases are supposed to go through a list of specific and approved vendors — and cover a menu of authorized purchases.

For example, parents can use the grants for “computer hardware, internet access or other technological devices or services that are primarily used to meet a participant’s educational needs.” That means a laptop is an appropriate purchase, for example.

Parents can also use the money for a range of other purchases, such as textbooks, testing fees, or occupational, behavioral and physical therapy.

Administration of the program — and the payments to families — falls to a New York-based vendor, Primary Class. In August, Primary Class signed a $1,485,000 contract with the state to set up and maintain a program platform, known as Odyssey. The Idaho agreement represented Primary Class’ first statewide contract, as Idaho Education News reported in September.

In an email, Primary Class CEO Joe Connor said his company is cooperating with the State Board’s review. And he said Primary Class has been watching purchases closely since the launch of the program last fall.

“We continually audit purchases to ensure the funds are being used according to their purpose, and we share those findings back with the state,” Connor said. “Since the launch of the program, we’ve reviewed tens of thousands of transactions and have identified just under .2% of purchased items that could be unapproved.”

The Primary Class contract requires the company to compile “a detailed summary of purchases” made by families. The contract also says that a parent that misuses grant money is ineligible for future grants.

But the contract does not appear to have any “clawback” language which would allow the state to recover money from Primary Class or parents.

“We’re not aware of a mechanism that would allow the state to claw back money for unauthorized purchases,” Keckler said in an email Friday afternoon.

Earlier this week, the State Board closed the books on this round of Empowering Parents grants.

In a news release, the board said the state had awarded nearly $49.5 million in grants, supporting nearly 49,500 students and more than 25,700 families.

But that isn’t the last chapter for Empowering Parents.

The 2023 Legislature voted to continue the grants — and, for the first time, lawmakers committed state money for the program. Lawmakers OK’d a $30 million, state-funded round of grants, under the State Board’s supervision. The next round of grants opens this fall.

A permanent Empowering Parents program was one of Little’s top education priorities in the 2023 legislative session. He proposed drawing the $30 million in state money from the $330 million in K-12 spending lawmakers approved in September. His proposal passed.

On Friday, Little did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

State superintendent Debbie Critchfield has reached out to State Board staff to find out more about the review, Critchfield spokesman Scott Graf said.

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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